Early spring could be a beautiful season. That year however, it was nothing of the sort. Ever since the snow melted in early February, it had rained and rained. The mud on the training field was over ankle deep. In the middle of the field, a group of people stood around in a circle around a figure sprawled out in the mud. The unconscious boy was dressed in padded fighting clothes. A wooden shield was strapped to his arm. His face was caked in blood and mud, and he was missing teeth. His jaw looked broken. A man was kneeling over him, feeling for his pulse and checking for any signs of breath. After his short inspection he stood up and wiped his hands on his woolen trousers.
“Dead!” he said loudly.
Voices rose in a murmur and everyone turned to stare at a tall, gangly boy of about twelve who stood just a little further off. He had long, ash-blond hair which reached the middle of his back and a messily cut fringe which fell into his eyes. The boy held a bloodied shield in his hand. His face and left hand were also sprayed with blood. He walked towards the dead teen slowly, and looked into the smashed face. He seemed puzzled.
“I didn’t mean to,” he said finally. The training master only shrugged.
“It happens. Your father will have to pay a fine of course. You should learn to control your strength boy. Why did you keep hitting his head after he fell? Didn’t you hear me tell you to stop?”
The boy looked at him and rubbed his eyes.
“No.” he said, voice impassive, “I didn’t.”
Someone in the group chuckled.
“Well that’s no good is it?" the training master sighed, "you can’t lose yourself in the fight that way. You need to be aware of your surroundings. If not, you’ll be more trouble than value on the battlefield!” He turned to look at the slaves who were standing around the training field, leaning over the fence and staring.“Show is over, get this one off the field! And you lot -” he turned back to look at the teens, “get back to training. Shield wall. One group holds, the other attacks. Then switch. I’ll be back soon. And I want no more accidents today!”
With that he strode off the field without looking back.
Chlodvig, captain of the mercenaries, rubbed his eyes with a calloused hand. Why was he thinking of that now? It had been ages since the accident on the training grounds. He tried to remember the dead lad’s name…Sigi…Sigi-something? The boy’s face was only a blur in his memory. As was the face of the training master. Lifetimes of experience had passed since then, so it was no wonder he couldn’t remember them. Why did the memory come back now? It was so vivid too. The blood, the mud, the whispers. Not the faces though…He rubbed his eyes again. The scented wood burning in the hearth was making him drowsy and giving him a headache. He shifted in his seat, trying to make himself a bit more comfortable. He was a tall man, and the chair he was sitting in was too small for him. Whenever he moved, it creaked dangerously. He wondered idly if Alexander Vanras, the official to whom they were just reporting, had given him this chair on purpose. Not that it mattered, really.
Chlodvig stretched, cracked his neck and looked around the elegant study. The walls of the small room were painted in frescoes showing mythological scenes. Centaurs, fauns, satyrs and such. In the middle of the room stood a highly decorated, Roman-style table. It’s legs were carved to resemble the clawed paws of a lion. It was made out of layers of colored marble. A round chessboard was carved into the center of the table and decorated with green and white inlay. There were no pieces on the board however.
Chlodvig’s second-in-command, Eirene, was counting the gold coins hoarded in a wooden chest before her. She did it quickly and efficiently. Alexander was standing with his back to them, staring out the window as they checked the payment. He was dressed in elegant but practical silks and his brown curls were fashionably tied with a silk band. Chlodvig wasn’t actually sure what Alexander’s official role in Adrianople was. The Vanras family was important, but as far as Chlodvig knew, Alexander didn’t hold any of the highest offices in the city. He did however, seem to regularly need mercenaries. Chlodvig was pretty convinced that at least half of the man’s dealings must have been treading on the line of legality. But of course, this was none of his business. He didn’t judge his customers. If he did, he would probably never get even a single contract. He ran his fingers through his short, ash-blond hair. When would Eirene finish counting the money?
“It’s all in order!” Eirene said at that very moment, shutting the chest with a snap. Alexander rolled his eyes.
“Of course it is,” he said, “I’m surprised you still feel the need to check, after all this time!”
“It’s nothing personal,” Chlodvig said, tone neutral. “We always check.”
“Of course!” said Alexander quickly. He cleared his throat. “Actually, it’s extremely auspicious – that means good - that you returned tonight. I have an offer for another job right away. Would you be interested?”
Chlodvig blinked. His grey eyes met Eirene’s hazel ones. The dark-haired woman shrugged her shoulders, making the light from the fireplace ripple over the scales of her armor.
“We might be. What do you have in mind?”
“A rescue mission actually! Imagine that, rather than kill people, I’d like you to save some!”
“Missions to save someone usually involve killing someone else.”
“Ah how efficient that sounds! It must be part of your advertising.” Alexander chuckled at his own joke. Seeing the blank looks on the faces of the two mercenaries he scratched his short beard awkwardly and continued, “you must have heard, that the Norman army landed on our coast some weeks ago?”
“Well, just before you arrived here tonight, I received news that those devils already reached Thessalonike. They’re besieging the city. I doubt it will hold. There have been some reinforcements sent but… ” Alexander checked himself, “well, never mind my theories. What I want from you is to get one of the archons, and his family out of there,” here Alexander looked Chlodvig squarely in the eye for the first time that evening, “I’m not going to lie, it’ll be hard to get inside the besieged city, let alone to get some mortals out. But your group is…unusually… skilled. And I will pay well.”
Eirene raised a thick, arched eyebrow. “Family of yours?” she asked.
“Something like that,” said Alexander quietly.
After a few moments of some quiet calculations Chlodvig said quietly: “280 nomismata”.
Alexander stared. “That’s a lot, even for you. It’s…more than a general’s yearly wage," he bit his lip thoughtfully, "I’m willing to pay that though! As long –” he stared at Chlodvig. “-as long as you save the archon, his wife, and all four daughters!”
“Four daughters?” Eirene whistled, “will the Captain receive the youngest one’s hand in marriage if we succeed in the mission?”
“This is not a joke,” Alexander said quietly. “I want all the women out of harm's way. And brought to safety intact! You know what sieges are like.”
Eirene looked away. She felt quite chastised suddenly. The soldierly humor sometimes rubbed off on her too much. She knew only too well the horrors of a city sack, and felt a sudden urge to go there and rescue these women. All of them. Intact and all. Even if Alexander wouldn’t pay them a goddam bronze follis for it! Her belligerent thoughts were interrupted by Chlodvig’s calm, neutral sounding voice.
“I want one third of the payment upfront. You can pay the rest when we return here with the archon’s family.”
“Not here,” Alexander replied, “Bring them to Neposi castle. One of my people is governor there. It’s out of the main road and there is no big city next to it, so the Normans are unlikely to head that way. I will meet you there.”
“The archon’s name?”
“Michael Dokeianos. The wife is Sophia. I forget the daughters’ names but that hardly matters. So? Do we have a deal?”
“We do. I’ll send someone once we reach Thessalonike. You notify the people at Neposi – I’d rather not be stuck at the city gates with a bunch of civilians in tow.”
“No,” laughed Alexander, “ you probably wouldn’t! And I assume you wouldn’t want to stay in front of the gates for the day either?”
If Chlodvig knew what the upbeat young man meant, gave no hint of it. Instead he said:
“Another thing, do you have anything that belongs to the archon?”
Alexander Vanras looked thoughtful. Then he started digging through a large chest standing in the corner of the room. It was full of letters, inventory lists, payment slips, wills, bequests and other, official looking, pieces of paper or vellum. Finally he smiled triumphantly as he pulled out a letter with a lead seal dangling from a string. He ripped the seal off from the piece of parchment.
“I have this. Would it do?” he stretched out his hand and handed the mercenary a small lead disc. Chlodvig looked over the seal briefly. The name ‘Michael Dokeianos’ was written in large bold letters on one side. The other side had the man’s official title. With a short nod, Chlodvig stuffed the seal into a leather bag hanging from his belt.
“What do you need it for?” Alexander asked, forgetting to mask the curiosity in his voice.
“It just might come in handy. Or not.”
“That’s hardly an answer. But you have your secrets. I accept that. We all do!” the official’s white teeth flashed in a good natured grin. Then he pulled out a fresh bag of coins and chucked it at the mercenary.
“I’m counting on you, dog!”
Chlodvig caught the bag, weighed it in his hand and nodded. Without a word he and Eirene left the study.
They made their way through the quiet streets of Adrianople. It was a beautiful night, warm, with a gentle breeze, the sound of the cicadas filling the air. It was very serene. Eirene, who had to walk quickly to catch up with Chlodvig’s long strides, was not serene however.
“That snot-nosed whelp!” she said indignantly. “First he makes us wait for two hours. Then he doesn’t offer us anything to drink. And then he makes those snide linguistic remarks. - It means ‘good’ - ” here she made a rather good, if mocking, imitation of Alexander’s voice. “Oh for goodness sake, you’d think they’d finally accept that your Greek is as good as theirs? Never mind that I actually AM Roman. And educated. And I don’t feel the need to rub it into the face of everyone I meet. You’d think if he’s offering a job he could stand to be polite for ten minutes. But no! Not to mercenaries!”
Chlodvig shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter,” he said, his voice flat, grey eyes looking sleepily at Eirene.
His second-in-command rolled her eyes. “That’s what you always say. To everything. Have some more pride damn it!”
The mercenary shrugged. “Pride? Never seen its appeal to be honest. Besides, isn’t it a sin or something?”
Eirene laughed. “That depends. In some cases it’s a sin, but in others it’s a virtue.”
“All the more reason not to have it. I’d probably get confused about which is which.”
“You know Captain, you really are rather boring!”
It was late but there was bright light and loud voices coming from the “Dowager’s Head” a large inn which lay outside the walls of Adrianople, on the main road to Constantinople. Inside, the innkeeper was running around nervously, trying to calm his guests and convince them that a troupe of 15 mercenaries wasn’t really such bad news. There would be no trouble, and everyone was safe to stay at the inn. Most of the guests were not convinced however, and left hurriedly as the big, heavily armed group started to take their seats loudly around the large table in front of the main fireplace. They even brought their dogs!
The innkeeper tried to explain to the tall, blond-haired fellow who seemed like the leader, that an inn was hardly the place to bring in dogs. He pointed out politely as food is served in an inn, it is not good to have dirty, ever hungry dogs running around. But the tall soldier missed the point completely, and only replied quietly that his dogs were not dirty. The innkeeper could only watch helplessly, as three large mutts, with muddy paws and slobbering mouths, trailed between the legs of the mercenaries, and entered his inn.
The group looked odd to say the least. They seemed to come from all different parts of the Empire, and from beyond it too. There were long-haired men wearing felt caps, and with bows strung to their hips; Alans or Turks most likely. There were tall, blond men, Norse by the look of it, dressed in maille shirts and carrying axes. Saracens, one in shining scale armor and with a turban covering his hair, the other in a heavy cloak that hid his armor. A Greek man in lamellar armor, with a ferret on his shoulder. A brown man, part Ethiopian probably, with curly hair, dressed in a colorful gambeson. A red-headed, freckled fellow with tattoos all over his left arm. A Frank with a pointed beard, wearing the typical surcoat of a Latin knight. A Norman knight dressed in a motley of western and eastern armor.
What was even more shocking, was that four of the mercenaries were women. Women dressed in heavy armor, carrying weapons, and speaking loudly and confidently. They seemed unaware that such behavior was highly unacceptable, here in the Empire. Two of the women had their hair completely uncovered, in clear violation of usual Roman mores. One actually had her hair cut short! With her short hair and bulky armor, it was hard to tell this one really WAS a woman. Churchmen would sure have a lot to say about that sort of behavior. But then, again, the innkeeper thought, churchmen always have a lot to say, on every topic possible.
As the innkeeper handed out the soldiers’ orders, he wondered, not for the last time that night, if letting them in was worth all the trouble. He hoped they would spend a lot. They seemed to be in the right mood for that, chatting loudly about a new contract.
“Thessalonike? That’s really close!” one of the soldiers was saying. It was the blond man with only one ear, “It shouldn’t be more than a week’s march!”
“More like twelve days, if we take the wagons,” another one corrected in heavily accented Greek. “But I take it, we need to be there much quicker than that, right Captain?” he asked.
The captain looked at him blankly for a few moments. Then he nodded.
“I want to get there in five nights. We won’t take the wagons. We’ll change horses at Kavala. Reem, Keto, Kurshan, I want you to fly ahead and arrange it. Change of horse for everyone. And get some spares. Seven at least. You leave right now.”
“Yessir!” grinned a swarthy man with a heavily scarred face, one of the nomad archers. Two women, both wearing turbans, got up. The scarred-faced man chuckled, “four beautiful daughters! Imagine that!” The woman named Reem gave him an unpleasant look but she said nothing. The three of them left the inn without another word.
The innkeeper, who heard the whole conversation scratched his head. 'Fly?' he wondered. 'Must be a language thing'.